Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Looking Back on the Decade

Doesn’t that sound incredible, but we are coming to the end of the first decade of the 21st century. There are all kinds of sites online that are lining up to list what they consider the best or most worthy book titles written during the past ten years.

The Times Online lists their 100 choices, with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road taking first place.

Good Reads took a reader’s poll and came up with their own list. The first five places went to The Time Travellers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling, Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Twilight by Stephanie Meyer, and A Thousand Splendid Suns, also by Khaled Hosseini.

Salon.com chose a few different titles than most lists. Their top fiction and non-fiction titles were The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers.

Amazon.com makes a stab at the best books and includes The Life of Pi (“a boy stuck on a raft with a large Bengal tiger) by Yann Martel, John Adams by David McCullough, and the Harry Potter series.

I can think of several titles that were personal favorites of mine. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire Harry Potter series and the Deathly Hallows was a fitting finale for a series that may have changed the world of children’s book publishing forever.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion said much to me personally about grief and loss and living the life you have been given to the fullest. I am not a Joan Didion afficianado, but this title was truly a work of magic. I also really loved The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman, The Knitting Circle by Ann Hood and Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi.

As you probably realized, I love a good mystery and recently I discovered two series that were excellent: the Julia Spencer-Fleming series with the Reverend Clare Ferguson and Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne and Steig Larssen's soon-to-be trilogy about Lisbeth Salander.
So, looking back on what you have read over the past ten years, what are your favorites? What do you think influenced you the most, or was the most meaningful? Meg

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

An Old Fashioned Christmas Mystery – The Finishing Stroke by Ellery Queen

I started reading mysteries when I was a very young child. Having gone through all of the library’s Nancy Drew’s and Trixie Belden’s, I would sneak over to the adult side and revel in the wonderful detective writers they had over there, including Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner and my favorite, Ellery Queen. I know he’s old fashioned, but I learned much of my adult vocabulary from his writing (“There was not a scintilla of evidence…”) and his mysteries almost always included a formal “Challenge to the Reader” to solve the mystery that I was eager to accept.

Among my favorite titles from the pen of Ellery Queen is The Finishing Stroke, a brilliant and complicated mystery set during the 12 days of Christmas in an old mansion in upstate New York in the middle of a raging blizzard. Ellery has been invited to spend the holidays, along with 12 other guests, at the home of Arthur B. Craig, a wealthy publisher. Other guests include Ellery’s friend John Sebastian, his cousin, Ellen Craig, his fiancĂ©, Rusty Brown and her somewhat eccentric mother, Mrs. Brown, who is deeply into astrology, John’s friends Marius Carlo and Valentina Warren, Dr. Sam Dark, the family physician, Roland Payne, the family attorney, Dan Z. Freeman, publisher and the Reverend Mr. Gardiner, an Episcopal priest.

And thus the scene is set for a happy holiday gathering – or not. On the first evening a present is found under the Christmas tree. The small, wrapped box contains a carved ox, an unfinished doll’s house, and a tiny camel. The accompanying card reads “On the first night of Christmas your true love sends to you, a sandalwood ox in a holiday box, An unfinished house for the soon-to-be-spouse, A grey and white camel with skin of enamel.” Not exactly threatening, but anonymous and mysterious nonetheless.

Ellery, who has a reputation for being somewhat of a sleuth, is asked to look into the matter and the game’s afoot. Because the card is based on the song The Twelve Days of Christmas, no one is surprised when the puzzling gifts keep on appearing. And then Santa and a dead body turn up. The solution is a bit esoteric, but really clever and the atmosphere of the holidays and the snow and the isolation make for a perfect winter holiday mystery.

Note about the author(s): Ellery Queen is the pseudonym (and the main character) of two American writers, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. Together they wrote over 30 detective novels starring Ellery as well as mystery anthologies and true crime essays. They co-founded and edited The Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, which is still publishing today. Meg

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Gift of Holiday Reading

Books are always a good holiday gift. The smell of a brand new book - the anticipation when opening a book cover for the first time – books are truly the gift that keeps on giving. Here are some recommendations for new books to give this holiday season that are truly in the holiday spirit.

Knit the Season by Kate Jacobs. This novel is a heart-warming sequel to the Friday Night Knitting Club and offers more information about Georgia, founder of the Walker and Daughter Knitting Shop. If you want a book about friendship, love and the holiday season this is a good choice. If you are giving it to a knitter, this is a perfect choice

Tinsel: A Search for America’s Christmas Present by Hank Stuever takes a look at what Christmas has become in several selected American communities. On his way to describing what is now a “half-trillion-dollar holiday” and how this compares to the ancient rituals where it started, Stuever finds warmth, incredible excess, commerciality and humor. A very seasonal read.

Stones Into Schools by Greg Mortenson picks up where Three Cups of Tea left off as we follow Mr. Mortenson in his continuing quest to establish schools for girls in Afghanistan. Surely Mortensen’s goal to spread education and peace on earth is in the spirit of the holidays.

And finally, two books on a similar theme….gratitude. Whether Sarah Ban Breathnach in her book Simple Abundance or Oprah Winfrey on her TV show originated the gratitude journal, it is a tool that has become popular. And now the whole concept of gratitude and what an appreciation of life’s blessings can bring is capturing the attention of even more authors.

The Gift of Thanks: Roots and Rituals of Gratitude by Margaret Visser presents an in depth study of what it means for humanity to be truly thankful. Publisher’s Weekly calls Vissner’s title a “delightful and graceful gift of a book, for which any fortunate recipient will be thankful.”

Nina Lesowitz and Mary Beth Sammons have written Living Life as a Thank You: The Transformative Power of Daily Gratitude. Living as if each day is a thank-you can help transform fear into courage, anger into forgiveness, isolation into belonging. There is even a chapter entitled “Ways to Stay Thankful in Difficult Times” – certainly a timely thought. Meg


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